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When is Someone a "Habitual Drunkard" to Allow for Weapons Forfeiture?

Drunk Man.jpgLaw enforcement officers are entrusted by society to protect society and its principles. They are permitted and issued firearms for this purpose, largely as a matter of law. This privilege to carry firearms is not absolute though, and can be revoked in certain circumstances, even when not directly related to work environment; an officer's home life and personal habits can be used by the courts in their assessment. 

A New Jersey Appellate Court was forced to evaluate an officer's home life when a domestic violence dispute was brought by his wife  in In the Matter of Weapons Seized Pursuant to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act from J.C.H. In May 2017, the wife was granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the officer, after describing nine incidents of domestic violence, including threats to kill her and physical violence. The officer was placed under administrative leave by his department and would be required to undergo a "Fitness for Duty" (FFD) 3 examination. The FFD tests whether an officer is physically and psychologically able to carry out his employment duties and responsibilities. He previously underwent an FFD in 2013, when his wife's social media postings portrayed that he had "issues with control, anger, alcohol and suicide ideation."

Before the FFD was conducted, the officer's chief inappropriately allowed him to return to his job. Shortly thereafter, the police responded to a 911 call at his home. He had put a firearm to his head, threatening his own life, and later tried to leave the home. The wife struggled with him, holding onto his car to prevent him from leaving; she was later thrown off the vehicle, falling on her head and sustaining other injuries. The wife called the police out of concern for his life and did not request a final restraining order. 

The officer was once again placed on administrative leave. His FFD concluded that he was not fit for duty because he "evidence[d] a psychological condition or impairment that would likely interfere with his ability to effectively function as a [p]olice [o]fficer." The psychologist further opined that this implied "...there should not be [access to] guns." The officer's expert even later testified that Josh had a "long history of alcohol abuse", was "alcohol dependent" and was "still at risk for difficulties with alcohol." Nonetheless, the trial judge looked to the officer's seven-month period of sobriety and determined that the officer was not a "habitual drunkard" under law and was not unfit to carry a firearm. 

The Appellate Court reviewed and reversed the trial court's opinion. Seizure of an owner's weapons is permitted if the owner has one of nine disabilities, including if the person is "presently a habitual drunkard." The Appellate Court looked to the officer's history of domestic violence, and noted that seven-months of sobriety, in contrast with this 29 years of alcohol abuse, did not negate that he was currently a "habitual drunkard."

New Jersey law may allow removal of a firearm from someone's possession, whether owned or carried because of his occupation, if his history with alcohol renders him a "habitual drunkard" The dismissal of a TRO is not evidence of fitness to carry. A Court's decision on  whether someone is a habitual drunkard will consider a defendant's entire history, but also begs the question of what amount of sobriety will negate someone's past. 

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